Decades before the French came up with the term of endearment, film noir, for those dark, melodramatic and fatalistic movies churned out by Hollywood in the forties and fifties, they had already made a classic one! Jean Gabin plays, Pépé, the man from Marseilles, a smooth, handsome, charming, and rather lighthearted criminal who saves his reserves of brutality for when they are really needed. For two years, he has been hiding out in the casbah of Algiers, the old city of endless labyrinthine streets, and as long as he doesn’t venture forth into the newer colonial town, the police can never get him.
This is not to say that the cops don’t know where he is, only that it is futile and foolhardy to try and arrest him there. He is among friends, people who are no friends of the police. One local inspector is on quite friendly terms with him, joking with him that the date of his arrest is written already (Asiatic kismet) and that he need only wait. In the image above, Pépé jokes with the policeman, talking to him as if he is a pretty tart who has accosted him on the street. “What nice mascara you have, dear,” Pépé tells him, and then tweaks his nose while walking away to a romantic rendezvous.
Pépé is tough, but he has a soft spot. Yes, he is undone by women, although not quite the way you would expect. I thought I knew the film’s ending, but it surprised me. He is done in by three women: Inez, his gypsy lover; Gaby, the gorgeous and gorgeously dressed Parisienne who starts out slumming fashionably in the casbah but falls for Pépé; and Paris, la belle Paris that he misses so much that he smells the metro in Gaby’s perfume. He is done in by nostalgia for his old haunts – hiding out in the Algiers has become insufferable to him, and he does something desparate, just as the inspector knew he would.
He confesses that he was only pretending to sleep – he was daydreaming of Paris. That’s what she is to him. Her perfume, it smells of the the metro!
Sometimes, one must be brutal to get the truth, especially from a weasel informer. “That’s the truth!,” he squeals. “Find another truth,” and he keeps on choking him.
Gaby is always dressed to the nines because she is the kept woman of a wealthy businessman. But she is tired of him, and wants to go to the casbah. He tells her, “I won’t have you acting like a…” “Like what, exactly? That’s what I am to you!” The girl has few illusions. She throws her jewels on the bed and storms out, but, wait! “I must be crazy!!” She retrieves the jewels and then walks out.
A simple lie keeps Gaby from running to him. She has no choice but to stay with her Monsieur. Pépé’s lover comes to the fancy hotel to warn him away from the trap that awaits, but the shot of her through the revolving door to the lobby shows the unbridgeable distance between that world and her world, the casbah. She never gets inside.
He’s caught. The inspector handcuffs him, but grants him a wish. He lets him stay to watch the boat sail away with Gaby. Through the bars – he’s imprisoned already, by his own desires – he can barely make her out on the deck, taking a last look at Algiers.
The shot zooms into her perfectly fashionable face and suit. She doesn’t see him or hear him over the noise of the engines. She’s in another world, the world of Paris, already.
Pépé dies. Killed by a femme fatale? Victim of his own dreams and longing? Plaything of society? The inspector and his lover attend him in a tableau, the sagging pathetic corpse brought low, the bending figures, the vertical lines of judicial and penal order, that brings to mind The Deposition.
This essay from the Criterion edition of the DVD, discusses the tremendous influence of this movie on all subsequent gangster and noir flicks.